Font Functions in “House of Leaves”

One of the most unique features about the physical appearance of Danielewski’s House of Leaves is the wide range of fonts, colors, and text orientation in the novel. Danielewski’s massive work already requires its readers to follow many different streams of information that impact the meaning they draw from the novel (multiple narrators, footnotes and references to both existent and non-existent outside sources, letters, photographs, comic book pages, etc.), but its at times highly unconventional layouts and text orientations signify meanings and reading methods of their own. While its unique use of typography in general helps form the story of House of Leaves (particularly in passages where text appears upside-down, backwards, or spaced far apart or sparsely), even basic choices in font alone–which would in a more traditional work alter only the appearance of the text–need to be taken into account in terms of the novel’s greater meaning and how the reader determines/interacts with it.

On their most basic level, the different fonts used in the novel serve as a way for the reader to quickly determine which of its multiple narrators’ work they are currently following. As the Wikipedia entry on House of Leaves briefly suggests, each font might also signify something deeper about that narrator.

Times, which according to is “one of the most successful typefaces in modern history” and probably the most widely used font of the four, is used for Zampano’s narrative, which comprises what could be considered the base thread of the book: the story of Navidson’s exploration of his house and the film based on it. In this sense, it follows that the most traditionally “bookish” font would be used for these sections.

Johnny Truant’s use of the less traditional Courier suggests both a typewriter–implying the responsive/referential quality of this narrative, as it is written in response to the discovery of Zampano’s work and more similar to the act of note taking–and a much more defined personality than is present in Zampano’s research-based writing. Interestingly enough, Courier was originally named “Messenger,” which could refer to the way that Johnny serves as a messenger between the books’ readers and Zampano’s text.

The Editor’s (Ed.) comments appear much more sporadically than the others, but the bold yet traditional Bookman typeface suggests both the Editor’s authority and, presumably, neutrality toward the story. We are thus likely to take Ed.’s authoritative notes at face value, while being much more apt to question Johnny’s statements, which are influenced by his emotions and suggested mental instability.

Finally, the letters written by Johnny’s mother, Pelafina, to her son (featured in Appendix II-E and recommended as optional reading by the Editors on pg. 72) use the more romantic Dante font. This choice adheres to her at times flowery prose and use of classical references and Latin, exemplified by passages like these:

Your letter is not paper and pencil. It is glass, a perfectly round glass in which I can endlessly gaze on my fine young boy, unleashing arrows like some Apollo, scrambling across cliffs like the agile and ever wily Odysseus, not surprisingly besting his peers in mad dashes by the shores of that turquoise lake you described—Hermes once again pattering on terra! And to top it all off, a kite of your own construction still drifting among the temples of Olympus. (Danielewski 599)

It is not only the fonts themselves that affect the readers’ experience, however, but their colors as well. On a functional level, the colors help to signify repeating themes and at times even seem to provide hints to the reader that a certain concept is important. For instance, the word “house” consistently appears in blue, which Danielewski is rumored to have chosen in reference to the way a blue screen works in film.

Navidson’s house acts as a psychological “blue screen,” meaning those who enter the maze effectively come into an empty structure on their own, with their psyches providing the background images and sound much the way Industrial Light and Magic provided the asteroid fields pummeling the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: A New Hope. (Eric Wittmershaus, flakmagazine)

While the use of blue may help an extremely astute reader or film expert (or someone like myself, whose puzzlement leads them to an online search) to make this connection, it is the repeated use of the color itself that actually prompts this search. Otherwise, this thematic element would be lost completely.

Likewise, the repeated use of strike-through and red font for sections regarding the mythological Minotaur in Zampano’s passages suggest not only his revision process, which adds to the text’s work-in-progress feel, but help to reveal personal aspects of his character that are missing from his largely objective narrative. This signifies to the reader that there is something about this theme Zampano finds disagreeable or uncomfortable.

In this way, Danielewski is able to use font, typically an extremely basic typographical choice, to actually add another level of meaning to his novel, simultaneously helping the reader to organize information and narrative threads, pick out recurring themes, and gain otherwise unavailable knowledge about characters.

Elise Hawthorne


~ by elisehawthorne on March 14, 2010.

%d bloggers like this: